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Take the SnowCoach up, snowshoe down Mt. Washington’s Auto Road

Take the SnowCoach up, snowshoe down Mt. Washington’s Auto Road

Snowcoach snowshoe mt washington

Snowshoeing up a mountain is decidedly harder than snowshoeing down. But if you want to be rewarded with those glorious high-elevation views and an easy-going return trip back to the trailhead, you’ll have to pay your dues with some panting and sweating on the way up. Besides, it’s not like someone’s going to drive you up the mountain and drop you off with a smile and an “enjoy your hike down.”

Unless we’re talking about Mt. Washington, where you can absolutely get a ride up (not all the way to the summit – the weather’s too cagey for that) and then enjoy a leisurely snowshoe back down.

I was lucky that my friend Leah invited me to join her on this adventure. I’d long known about the SnowCoach tours, but had no idea you could ride up and snowshoe down until she mentioned it. So now I feel obliged to share the wisdom.

Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center
The Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center, where the SnowCoach awaits. Shannon Bryan photo

The ride is thanks to the Mt. Washington SnowCoach, a 12-passenger van that’s been outfitted with what are essentially tank tracks. There’s a small fleet of SnowCoaches that make the trek up and down on a daily basis throughout the winter, starting from the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center in Gorham, New Hampshire, just across the street from the Mt. Washington Auto Road.

(Yes, we’re talking about New Hampshire, because we active Maine folk sometimes like to hop the border, amiright?)

What tires can’t do, these tank tracks can. Shannon Bryan
SnowCoach Mt. Washington
Guests piling into the SnowCoach before starting the ride up Mt. Washington. Shannon Bryan photo

While tours run all day, they’re mostly first come, first served, but you can book in advanced for the 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Tours end for the season April 1, so there’s still time! (Or put it on your to-do list for next winter.)

While you wait, you can hang out at the outdoor center, get breakfast, browse the shop, and hang out by the fire.

The Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center has a small cafe, dining area with views of the mountains, and a couch by a fire. Shannon Bryan photos

When it’s time for your tour, your guide will help you pile into the van (while it is a 12-seater, they generally seat only 7-9 people, so you’ll have room to move…and to gawk out the windows and take photos).

Tour guide Wink drives the SnowCoach and points out the peaks, the birds, and shares some mountain knowledge during the ride up. Shannon Bryan photo
The SnowCoach heads up the snow-covered Auto Road. Shannon Bryan photo

It’s a loud and rumbling ride up on account of the tracks, which aren’t exactly stealth, but our guide Wink did his best to share some mountain knowledge along the way and stopped occasionally to point out the change in tree cover as we gained elevation and to point out birds and rabbit tracks in the snow and name the peaks we could see in the distance.

SnowCoach Mt Washington
There are some pretty amazing views from the SnowCoach. Shannon Bryan photo

The ride up takes about 35 minutes, and it’s a pretty one. And when the SnowCoach reaches it’s turn-around point (about 4,200 feet up, whereas the summit is 6,288) you’ll have a chance to get out, walk around, and take in the scenery.

Guests climb out of the SnowCoach at 4,200 feet. Shannon Bryan photo
The SnowCoach takes a break at 4,200 feet, so guests have a chance to wander. Shannon Bryan photo

Guests have about 20 minutes to hang out up there (during our visit, it was exceptionally sunny and gorgeous, with low winds and great visibility. But this is Mt. Washington, so the conditions can be wide-ranging. Wear all the layers and be ready for cold and wind and clouds, even if the warm, dry van is just steps away).

Out of the SnowCoach and enjoying the views from Mt. Washington. Shannon Bryan photo
Leah takes it all in on a ridiculously nice day on Mt. Washington. Shannon Bryan photo
You’ll probably want to take lots of photos. Shannon Bryan photo
Our guide, Wink, studies a map of mountain peaks while looking at mountain peaks. Shannon Bryan photo
Following some tracks in the snow during the break at 4,200 feet. Shannon Bryan photo
Our guide, Wink, before he climbs back into the SnowCoach to take the rest of the guests back down. Shannon Bryan photo

Eventually, guests pile back into the SnowCoach for the 35-minute ride back down.

Or you can choose to strap on your snowshoes and enjoy a leisurely trek down, with gravity helping the whole way. (If you don’t own your own snowshoes, the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center rents them.)

You don’t have to start at 4,200 feet – the SnowCoach guide can drop you further down along the Auto Road, but since it was such a stupendous day, Leah and I opted to start from as high up as possible.

Let the snowshoe begin! The 4,000-foot marker on the Mt. Washington Auto Road. Shannon Bryan photo
Leah before we start our snowshoe trek back down Mt. Washington’s Auto Road. Shannon Bryan photo

There are dedicated snowshoe trails on Mt. Washington (we spotted a few snowshoers cutting across the Auto Road to pick up their trail during our trek), but you’re also perfectly welcome to take the Auto Road the whole way down. It’s groomed knightly, making this path a wonderfully wide and perfectly groomed snowshoe trail (and it’s pretty much impossible to get lost or take a wrong turn).

The Auto Road in winter. Shannon Bryan photo

That said, there will be SnowCoaches passing now and then, so you’ll get to hang to the side of the trail and wave as they pass by (there’s a strong chance the guide will stop and say hello, too).

But on the whole, you’ll have plenty of time to take in quiet. And maybe appreciate how easy it is to snowshoe downhill.

Me, not unhappy about how the day is unfolding. Photo by Leah Schneckloth
Making our way down the Auto Road. Shannon Bryan photo
It is so pretty! Shannon Bryan photo

Eventually – after about two hours, you’ll find yourself back at the Auto Road entry gate once again. The Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center is just across the street (up a slight hill, of course).

Leah celebrates a successful snowshoe trek. That’s the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center in the background. Shannon Bryan photo

Back at the outdoor center, we changed clothes and hung out by the fire for a bit, content with our successful early-spring adventure.

And then we realized we were hungry. And thirsty. So…

Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewing Company in North Conway. Shannon Bryan photos

Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewing Co.
About a 20-minute drive from Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center is Moat Mountain Brewing Company, where you can get a pint of East Intervale IPA or Czech Pilsner and order a burger, nachos, or wrap. Because you still deserve to eat well, even if your adventure was all downhill.

Related: Don’t think that going downhill is a perfect breeze. My calves ached for two days after this trip. And I mean hobble-every-time-I-stood-up kind of ache.

SnowCoach Tours

Tours run daily throughout the winter (ending April 1 this winter, so get on it!) starting at 9 a.m. Tickets sold mostly on first come, first served basis, but you can book in advance for some 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. tours. Cost is $49 for adults and $30 for youth ages 5-12 years.
FMI: greatglentrails.com/snowcoach-2

There’s a 2-for-1 deal on Mondays and Fridays.

You can start your snowshoe from 4,200 feet, where the SnowCoach turns around, or get dropped off further down. If you don’t have your own snowshoes: Info on snowshoe rentals

Also cool: During peak season, there are Sunrise Snowcoach Tours, so keep that in mind for next winter.

Shannon Bryan

Shannon Bryan

I don't like "exercise" any more than you do. But you know what I do like? Paddleboarding with a friend all afternoon (and then sitting in the grass to drink chardonnay). Bike rides and nachos, hikes, yoga classes held in breweries, group paddles to Fort Gorges, you get the idea. Because Maine is my gym.

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